Playing Against the Pegasus World Cup Favorites

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The final weekend in January is highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) and $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) at Gulfstream Park.

Let's handicap both races:

Pegasus World Cup (G1)

The eighth running of the Pegasus World Cup is tricky to analyze. Five of the first seven editions were won by horses exiting victories at the Breeders' Cup, including Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winners City of Light (2019), Knicks Go (2021), and Life Is Good (2022).

But this year's Pegasus World Cup has come up a bit lighter than past editions. There aren't any Breeders' Cup winners in the field. Morning line favorite #7 National Treasure (9-5) came close, finishing second by a nose in the 2023 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, but can we trust him to deliver a peak performance this Saturday? We know National Treasure has talent—he won the Preakness (G1) last spring—but consistency has been a struggle. He missed the trifecta in all three of his starts between the Preakness and Dirt Mile, and he's done his best work when able to secure an uncontested lead.

National Treasure seems unlikely to secure an easy lead in the Pegasus since #4 Hoist the Gold (12-1), winner of the Phoenix (G2) sprinting six furlongs, is also in the field. Hoist the Gold recently rode a strong speed-favoring track to a gate-to-wire victory in the Cigar Mile H. (G2), and after posting a series of fast workouts at Fair Grounds, I have to think Hoist the Gold will pursue the early lead while stretching out around two turns. He's been part of six straight races with sub-:45 half-mile fractions and has the speed to make things difficult for National Treasure.

So who are the alternatives? Part of me wants to side with #6 Senor Buscador (20-1), who rallied from last place to finish second in the Cigar Mile, 4 1/2 lengths behind Hoist the Gold. The biased track played against Senor Buscador, and many of the horses who rallied against the grain of that speed-favoring surface have come back to win. But the bias aside, Senor Buscador was aided to some extent by the fast early/slow late race shape of the Cigar Mile, as the first half-mile elapsed in :44.88 and the second-half mile went in :49.40. Looking back through the rest of Senor Buscador's past performances, he tends to be a "pick up the pieces" type, so I'm thinking he's more likely to rally and grab a minor award than take top honors in the Pegasus.

That's why I've ultimately settled on #8 First Mission (7-2) as my top choice. The Brad Cox trainee did little wrong in five starts as a three-year-old last year, most notably beating future Woody Stephens (G1) winner Arabian Lion and Travers (G1) runner-up Disarm in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington (G3) at Keeneland.

Since returning in the fall from an injury-induced layoff, First Mission has been slowly rounding back into peak form. He overcame traffic to rally and win his comeback in a 1 1/16-mile $80,000 allowance optional claimer at Keeneland, after which he ran deceptively well to lose the Clark (G2) by a nose to older rival and fellow Pegasus entrant #5 Trademark (15-1).

In the Clark, First Mission broke from post two, and to avoid getting buried in traffic he came out running and uncharacteristically wound up dueling for the lead. He was hounded for six furlongs by longshot Film Star, and when First Mission put that rival away he was quickly confronted by the rallying Trademark. The latter held the lead at the sixteenth pole, but First Mission refused to yield and was actually battling back at the wire.

First Mission has since turned in a series of sharp workouts at Fair Grounds, including a couple of bullet five-furlong breezes. I'm confident he'll move forward in his third start off the layoff, especially if he reverts to the stalking tactics he employed in his first three route races. That should be straightforward since First Mission is breaking from post eight with Hoist the Gold and National Treasure to his inside. I picture First Mission settling behind the early leaders before rallying around the far turn and down the homestretch to secure his first Grade 1 win.

Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1)

A deep field has assembled for the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus World Cup Turf, with European raider #9 Warm Heart (9-5) the morning line favorite. The four-year-old daughter of Galileo finished second by a neck in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) and ended the year with a respectable third-place finish against males in the Hong Kong Vase (G1).

But Warm Heart has done her best work racing 1 1/2 miles, the distance over which she won the Yorkshire Oaks (G1) and Prix Vermeille (G1) last summer. In the 1 1/4-mile Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, she stayed within striking range of a decent pace and led close to home, but didn't have enough acceleration to out-kick the speedier Inspiral, who unleashed a terrific turn-of-foot to rally from ninth place at the eighth pole to first place at the wire.

In other words, I'm concerned Warm Heart is more of a galloping grinder who will find 1 1/8 miles around two turns at Gulfstream to be sharper than she can handle.

Instead, I'll back the undefeated #3 Integration (3-1), who looks to me like a superstar in the making. After smashing his debut racing 1 1/16 miles at Colonial Downs, Integration stretched out over 1 1/8 miles for Colonial's Virginia Derby (G2) and unleashed a sharp turn-of-foot to beat Saratoga Derby (G1) and Hollywood Derby (G1) winner Program Trading by 1 1/4 lengths, with next-out Bryan Station (G3) winner Runaway Storm another 2 1/4 lengths back in third place.

That was an impressive performance, but Integration elevated his game to a new level when wrapping up 2023 in the 1 1/8-mile Hill Prince (G3) at Aqueduct. After settling in third place, as many as eight lengths behind a pair of runaway leaders, Integration gobbled up ground and blazed his final furlong in an epic :10.85 to dominate by five lengths in 1:47.06.

Integration's brilliant acceleration should serve him well racing 1 1/8 miles in the Pegasus World Cup Turf, giving him the edge he needs to out-kick Warm Heart and spring a mild surprise.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Pegasus World Cup and Pegasus World Cup Turf?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

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